Tag Archive: Casting Call

6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters

The Cheshire Cat

The Cheshire Cat

I’m sure most writers know how to craft a major character; they understand the importance of their leads and that they should occupy the most page space. Yet every story needs supporting characters. Today, it’s all about the minor players, those characters we see briefly and yet are so well written they’ll stick with us. Sometimes the minor characters can steal the show. It’s not uncommon for TV shows to migrate a single episode character into a recurring one because viewers demand more.

Follow these tips and you’ll create a few background characters worthy of a readers’ attention.

  • Give them a reason for being there. I know it’s tempting to flood your pages with all the colorful characters your mind can dream up, but if characters have no role to play in the plot, they need to go. Remember it can be a small part, or even an addition to the subplot, but they should serve a purpose.
  • Make them relate to the protagonist or antagonist in a meaningful way. It helps to use them as a contrasting character point. If your protagonist is a stickler for details who methodically follows a ten year life plan, running across someone who never has a plan might be the ideal situation for creating an emotional shake-up.
  • Tie them to a fixed place or single role. Context helps readers keep characters straight. If you confine the minor character to a single location or the same job the reader is more likely to remember them. Keep that helpful teacher at school, or make confusion over seeing the teacher in a new context part of the exchange.
  • Use them more then once. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it helps. One effective method is to mention the character’s name in passing before or after you’ve show them to the reader. As I pointed out last week, talking about absent characters is a great way to help readers remember them.
  • Include some personal details. It’s best if you use both physical details and emotional ones. You don’t need to tell the reader everything about a minor character, it might be better if you didn’t, but you should know their backstory. With minor characters I tend to think the writer should include a ballpark age, a hint to temperament and one standout physical detail or quirky trait.
  • Keep in mind this is a minor character, so don’t go crazy. You may not want them overshadowing the protagonist. Or maybe you do. Sometimes minor characters have a viewpoint to share that changes the story in an exciting way. If they refuse to stay silent, maybe they have the makings of a secondary character.

Although great minor characters help every book, in series books they become an even bigger asset. Put simply, minor characters make your world building feel real. You don’t need to make every character walking down the street a work of art, but giving the reader a few fresh, funky, powerful minor players is fun and appreciated by most readers. Who knows, you just might create a character worthy of staring in your next book.

Click here for more posts by Robin

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Assembly Required: Create an Ensemble Book Cast

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cc 2.0 123FreeVectors.com

Over the last year I’ve done a large number of posts on character archetypes; you can read some of those posts here. I write these posts because I’m obsessed with creating groups of coordinating and contrasting characters. Some of my favorite books, TV shows and movies combine characters to create an interconnected web of personalities. The best examples do this casting so seamlessly that I can’t imagine detaching even a minor character without feeling like I’m losing something special.

In my opinion too many books are overly fixated on the main character; the author didn’t spend enough time creating the villains, the mentor and the sidekicks. In great books smaller characters stand out too. I think many authors fail to create more complicated ensemble casts for two main reasons:

  • The author fell in love with the main character and they intentionally allowed them to overshadow the book. Of course there are some fantastic books with only one (or two) main characters, but following this template is actually harder in my opinion. Also, unless that one character has some major nonhuman antagonist to battle, you’re not going to maintain much story tension with only one character.
  • The author sticks with a small cast because they don’t know how to create character chemistry and/or didn’t understand the value of creating strong secondary characters.

So if the first one is your book, I wish you all the best of luck with that approach. But if the second one is your situation here are 4 steps to help you create a great book cast.

Step 1. Study Ensembles:
Start watching TV shows and movies that feature a large number of leading characters. Make notes about how those relationships function. Don’t look at just one or two characters, study at least the top six or seven characters. Also pull out some minor but reoccurring characters and look at how the writer makes these roles special.

Now apply the same criteria to your own book. Create a map showing how each of your characters really feels about the others. What is each character’s emotional investment? Are they friendly, loyal, jealous or perhaps totally neutral? Too many neutral characters are a sure sign of problems within your group. I have a whole post on mapping character relationships, if you want to read more on that subject you can here.

Step 2. Recast as Necessary:
Now that you know how your characters feel about each other, fill in the holes. Every character should be a fully formed character. Establish emotional relationships, and social ones. Some characters should be leaders, others should be followers. Some should be loners, some joiners. Create a logical social hierarchy, and set every character in it. Create characters with unique goals and independent ideas about how best to achieve those goals. There is no point in adding new characters if you’re not crafting ones with distinctive roles and meaningful connections to other characters.

Step 3. Make The Most of Emotions:
In life no one likes everyone all the time. Give your group some friction between the characters, even between the cooperating ones. It helps if every character has some positive and negative traits. Change your relationships over time. Make sure some characters warm up to each other, while others cool down. Give your characters opportunities to fight as well as fall in love. Let them become disillusioned with a goal and disappointed in themselves or others. In other words, build emotional complexity. It’s a snooze when everyone responds to events in the same way.

Step 4. Fight The Fear of Writing Big Groups:
Many writing craft books say new writers should keep their cast small so they don’t create reader confusion. Reader confusion comes from too many similar characters, not from too many characters. By my count there are 53 reoccurring characters in the first Harry Potter book alone. They range from very minor, like the cat, Mrs. Norris, to more significant, Mrs. Weasley, all the way to the big three, Harry, Ron and Hermione. And I have yet to hear of a kid complain they have reader confusion. Have you?

Step 5. Make Every Character Count:
Minor characters can become memorable with a few carefully chosen lines. Also the names and roles of lesser characters should be frequently rewoven into the narrative even when the character is not in the scene. Think about how many times the professors of Hogwarts are talked about vs. how many times they actually interact with Harry. Understanding how to keep minor characters alive in the mind of the reader is an incredibly valuable technique for all series writers.

Remember any writer can flesh out the pages with lots of bodies, but it takes a great writer to make the pages pulse with crowds of people. Epic writers often excel at big casts, but you will find large casts in many popular books, and books with fascinating minor characters who become just as significant to readers as their protagonist partners. Regardless of what kind of book you write, creating an interesting supporting cast might be the missing ingredient in your recipe for literary success.

Check out some relationship charts from popular shows.

Mad Men Hook-ups

Game of Thrones Hook-ups

The X-Men Family Tree

Community Relationships




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Casting Call: Queens, The Archetype of Female Power


While I would argue that a woman can play any character, hero, villain, mentor, the Queen might be considered the most dynamic of the female archetypes. Queens are by nature powerful and public, making them ideal protagonists or antagonists. I had a hard time picking my top queens, but here are three of my favorites.






The Benevolent Ruler Queen:
This emblem of supreme power must wear many crowns. A reigning queen, ascending by her own merits or heredity, is expected to put duty before personal happiness. She will also find herself under closer scrutiny than her male counterparts. In a monarchy, the queen offers the young_victoria Webhope of stability by providing her country with heirs and an unbroken line of succession. The queen can be perceived as a fertility symbol, a surrogate mother figure and a spiritual leader. When the queen is married to the legitimate ruler, she may hold more symbolic than tangible power. In this case she might be expected to confine herself to civic affairs. The benevolent ruler archetype also translates into a CEO, a high-ranking political figure or a First Lady. I like Young Victoria for this archetype. I thought Emily Blunt brought a perfect blend of strength and vulnerability to the role.

The Beauty Queen:
Blessed with good looks, this queen knows how to make the most of her birth gifts. She can use her beauty to open doors and ascend to dizzying heights in her social arena and/or career. When you couple beauty with high intellect you have the makings of a perfect villain, or spy. This archetype is where you also find the femme fatales, the prom queens, and the high school queen bees. Beauty queens are too often maligned characters, typecast as vapid or evil, but they don’t have to be. Throw in a healthy dose of disdain, a quality of toughness, and a hint of naiveté, and you have the making of some fresh characters. Physical beauty is a social hot button; it’s closely tied to extreme emotions of jealousy, or devotion. You can try to avoid the negative stereotypes, and create queens who are thoughtful friends and socially conscious citizens. Or not, just embrace the cliche with Mean Girls. Rachel McAdams created a flawless version of the queen bee.

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The Evil Queen:
From Snow White to Cinderella, this archetype is a staple of children’s literature. In my opinion, the best evil queens are the ones forced into their moral decline by poverty and desperation. It’s engaging to watch them rationalize their cruel actions, or see themselves as victims. A person with unlimited power and lots of hangups can deal out the damage, and everyone around the evil queen walks on eggshells. Distrusted, reviled and beset by opposition, these queens let their anger fester until they snap. I do enjoy a touch of madness in this archetype, and if the writer can bury a kernel of decency under all the outer trappings of wickedness, I’m thrilled. In a contemporary setting, the evil queen model transitions into the monstrous teacher, the obsessive lover, and the neighborhood watch captain with serious control issues. I recommend Snow White and the Huntsman. It has a great narcissistic murderous witch of an evil queen to study.

Queens are fantastic archetypes, brimming with attitude, flavored with nuances. You can go with one who’s foreboding and malevolent, or nurturing and maternal. Make them hideous crones, or an enchantress; the scope and dynamism of female power is limitless.

Looking for more on archetypes? Click on any of these other Casting Call posts, villains, sidekicks, lovers with baggage and more.

Up Next: Heather with R: Reading Overload in the Information Age

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Casting Call: 3 Villains, It’s Good to be Bad

Villains come in as many shapes and sizes as their hero counterparts. The best pairs complement each other. The protagonist’s strengths and virtues contrast against the antagonist’s negative traits. When you take this relationship down to the most basic level, villains all want something and that something is going to cause havoc for the protagonist and/or the people the protagonist cares about. The villain fights the protagonist because he or she stands in their way. It’s a straightforward dynamic when you think about.

It’s the way villains get what they want, the means and tools they use to accomplish their goals that help us to group and define them. Some of the universal villain goals are: power, money, control, influence, vengeance, and even adoration. Where villains get interesting is when you start looking at their motivations. Why do they want to achieve their goal? Are they inherently malevolent or perhaps just misguided and misunderstood?

*Please note the last entry “The Non Humans” has a major spoiler for the film Blade Runner. If necessary please stop reading where I’ve marked and remedy this media crime immediately.

biff-tannen BTF webThe Bully:

This is the most basic villain archetype. When a kid writes a story, this is the one they naturally gravitate to. It’s everyone’s first experience with someone who seems to get a kick out of being bad. Classic bullies tend to be physically or socially superior in some way to those they bully. They might be better looking, larger, have wealth or influence and they use these attributes as part of their bullying arsenal. They like to surround themselves with minions, either other bullies, or people they can control. Bullies can be very intelligent, often outfitting themselves with a public persona that hides their true nature from family or those in authority. They’re adept at flipping the repercussions of their actions onto the shoulders of others. At their core, bullies are looking out for number one and they don’t like to take responsibility for their negative actions. They may not see what they’re doing as significant or morally wrong. They may act impulsively or without thinking.

Under the surface, bullies are often broken souls, they have low self-esteem and usually a history of abuse or neglect. The bully shows up in almost every form of children’s literature, from Harry Potter to the Chronicles of Narnia. However, adult stories are not immune, the bully boss is a common theme. The bully is a tried and true classic villain for a reason, it works. We can all relate to the protagonist’s fear and to their simmering desire to fight back. For a bully example try Biff Tannen in Back to the Future. I love how they bring Biff backwards and forwards in time, giving us the ultimate bully rise and fall from power, over and over again in the course of the franchise.

The Ruler:

This is a revisited archetype; we first met this authoritarian character as “The Leader” in the protagonist category.

Look here for more on that version. Where a leader governs, a ruler controls. Rulers are endowed with a ridged belief structure. They thrive in carefully stratified societies, ones that places them at the top of the elite class heap. They may justify their divine right to rule with magic, prophecy, or a primogenitor. Or just by the fact that they killed off the last ruler. We see this archetype in the evil queens, Malficent, or the White Witch. This character might be a religious figure, or someone deeply spiritual, but they’re using their god figure as a destroyer and not a creator. They can be attractive and charismatic, but also vain, sometimes using looks as a weapon to bolster their sense of self. They may demand adoration and/or crushing tribute and taxes from even the most lowly in their domain (think King John in Robin Hood). Most rulers live separate lives from those they control, and with good reason, they don’t trust anyone. The ruler can be the parent with an extreme mandate for household order, or the supreme authority figure for a nation of millions. The Don of a crime family is another version of the ruler archetype. Check out the Godfather and watch how rulers use many means, both subtle and terrifying, to maintain their authority.

The Non-Humans:
They’re back! Sure these archetypes are wonderful sidekicks, but they’re also homicidal killers, capable of causing destruction on an epic scale.

You cannot top the non-humans for pure villain diversity. Dolls named Chucky, Hal, the rogue super-computer, or Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Some are driven by pure evil. Others instinct, as in that case of the shark in Jaws. They’re single-minded in their pursuit and usually don’t bother to hide their intentions unless it suits their needs. These villains don’t feel the constraints of conventional morality, they lack compassion and empathy, so they’re impervious to the wake of human suffering they leave behind. Whether the non-humans view the humans as adversaries, annoying obstacles, or just well-packaged snacks, the non-humans know how to eradicate with style. Since these antagonists operate under their own set of rules, part of the excitement is watching the protagonist figure out what makes them tick. Plus, they’re often unstoppable by conventional means, leading to exciting climax solutions.

* Blade Runner virgins, please stop reading now *

Blade runner web

Top of my non-human heap is Blade Runner’s Roy Batty. He’s a replicant who develops an unexpected survival instinct and he will stop at nothing to find the solution to his own preprogrammed mortality. Batty is the bad guy you can’t hate. Yes, he’s a ruthless killer, but because human scientists made him that way. He moves into the realm of legendary antagonists when he saves the protagonist’s life. As with the best antagonists, Batty is not all bad, he’s simply committed to his own mission.

The clash of two equal partners creates a tension like no other, and it’s in finding that perfect balance of good vs. evil where many writers succeed or fail in creating a memorable story. Don’t be afraid to go big, and to be bad. This is one time in your life when having wicked thoughts will serve you well. Happy villain hunting.

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Casting Call: 4 Archetypes of Lovers With Baggage

220px-HowToLoseAGuyimpI’m taking a break this week from my Brain Triggers series and returning to the ever-popular Casting Call series. Today I have four characters, each selected from my strange bedfellows category. For the most part these characters fall into a romantic subgroup. Twisted though they may be, these common archetypes work for characters of either sex unless otherwise noted.  

The Sinners:

These are the slobs, the ill-tempered, the morally bankrupt. These romantic prospects have lousy jobs, messed up childhoods, and a history of failures a mile long. Perhaps they even have a stint in rehab, or an incarceration or two darkening their troubled past. So why do we love them? Because they show us a glimpse of their inner goodness, not often, but we know it’s there. Despite a life of hardships, underneath the crusty shell beats a warm heart just waiting for the right person to reform them. This archetype only works if we believe the character is redeemable. It’s easy to make this archetype look appealing with a criminal case like George Clooney as Danny Ocean in the Oceans franchise, but a lot trickier with someone less attractive or more emotionally damaged. Sinners abound in movies and TV; look to The Vampire Diaries’ Damon Salvatore for a darker version. We all tend to love anti-heroes, characters who still know how to save the day (and get their lovers back), although they leave behind a scandalously high body count while they do it. 

Four_weddings_poster webThe Reformed Romantics:

We tend to find the reformed romantic archetype endearing. This archetype is the former “player” who now sees the error of his/her ways. It’s a joy to watch this character get swept up in their first taste of true love. And if a string of jilted past lovers land some well-deserved payback punches along the way, all the better. Despite their mistakes, the reformed romantics tend to get a happy ending, as we saw in Groundhog Day, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, and 50 First Dates. Keep in mind, this archetype is a tricky minefield for a female character. Henry Roth (Adam Sandler’s character in 50 First Dates) would seem clingy and desperate as a woman. Even the male romantics walk a fine line between love and something prosecutable by a court of law. It always helps if we feel this character is either an innocent when it comes to love and courtship, or poking fun at their past relationship foibles. Perhaps no one does this archetype better than Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s self-deprecating, confused, and willing to admit he’s making a total fool of himself by pining way for the unattainable girl of his dreams.

The Playboy/Playgirls:

The flip-side of the reformed romantic is the confirmed player. These are the thrill seekers, the race car divers and the spies. This archetype’s motto is: live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. Playboy and playgirls are often promiscuous because they can be. Their special brand of recklessness appeals to something deep and primal inside us. This character is often wealthy and narcissistic, they want to hook up with strangers, have friends with benefits, and be able to leave them behind with no hard feelings. Although, be prepared, they might expect to jump back into their old lover’s bed the next time something brings them to town. The attraction for the viewing is the vicarious adventure. The adrenal factor, the exotic locations, and the heart stopping adventures. Some people adore this commitment-free lover; I know I do. Other people are only happy when this archetype finds a mate, either someone who’s their equal in the fast lane or someone their willing to give up the lifestyle for. I prefer my playboys kept wild, to let them stay true to themselves and spread the joy around. For the female version, I would normally say Angelina Jolie is the tried and true icon here for her role as Lara Croft Tomb Raider, but Helen Mirren gets my vote as Victoria, in RED.

The Ill-fated and unlucky:

casablanca poster webRomeo and Juliet are the classic ill-fated couple, but they’re not the only ones. Whenever two people can’t put things together at the same level of commitment at the same time, we see a tragedy in the making. These are sad archetypes, fate deals them a heavy burden, and at every exchange their plight tends to grow. Much of the ill-fated love archetype is overloaded with characters who are not really in love, but are just too selfish and/or immature to understand what real love is: Carrie and Big in Sex in the City, or Rhett and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. While always an emotional train-wreck, the ill-fated archetype is more interesting to me when their on the verge of a major character evolution. In many cases these archetypes make their first mature sacrifice at the story climax, often but not always, for the sake of their lover. These coming of age characters learn they can’t control major events, and that their own happiness isn’t the most important thing in the world. Casablanca is a great example of the ill-fated archetype. I also like Roman Holiday for this one. A journalist and a royal? Such a sticky union. Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) must grow up and put aside her own feelings so she can assume her rightful place as a ruler.

Love is such a complicated emotion, is it any wonder that lovers come in so many different archetype packages? I happen to love messed up lovers, hopefully I’m not alone. As with all archetypes, mix, match and look for ways to modify or smash the molds. Make something uniquely your own creation.

For more post by Robin, click here.

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Casting Call: 7 Sidekick Archetypes

Nothing elevates the quintessential protagonist like the perfect sidekick. These secondary characters help showcase the protagonist’s positive and negative traits by contrasting them against the sidekick’s own traits. The bond between these two characters is often a vulnerable relationship. Our good friends always know our darkest history, the secrets we never share with outsiders. At times, the sidekick acts more like a co-protagonist, particularly with the mentor/apprentice relationship, or with a group of hero characters, archetypes I’ve already addressed in other posts.

The exemplary sidekicks can take over the story, becoming more memorable, interesting, and/or Great Sidekickslovable than their partner. Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Igor in Young Frankenstein, or Ford Perfect in The Hitcher’s Guide to the Galaxy, all these sidekicks have solid and unshakable fan bases. Sidekicks, like all characters, have their own archetypes; here are seven of my favorites.

1. The Cheerleader:

No, this is not the short-skirted athletic variety of cheerleader, that one is more often at home in the antagonist, mean-girls category. This cheerleader just wants to be happy and when possible spread that joy around. They are often annoying, but well-meaning characters, and in the case of Pollyanna, or Annie, manage to pull off being the protagonist in the story. Optimistic and clinging to an assurance that everything eventually turns out for the best, the cheerleader can be a complicated or even tragic figure, inwardly sad, and hiding dark secrets behind a soft voice and an every-ready smile. Although surrounded by the other sort of cheerleaders, Rachel Berry from Glee is one too, always ready to pump up herself or her friends with her big dreams for a bright future.      

2. The Class Clown:

The habitually clumsy, the socially clueless, and the naughty prankster are all at home in this group. The clowns lighten not only the atmospheric mood by zinging brilliant oneliners and executing physical comedy with ease, but by tempering an overly serious and dark protagonist. Some clowns even get their laughs from feeding off the chemistry of their too-serious partners. Comic duos are ShortRound Sidekicksoften the most humorous to watch; when a funny protagonist meets his or her equal, magic often happens. There are many funny sidekicks: Donkey in Shrek, Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy, or try Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This pint-sized sidekick stole the show with comic timing far beyond his years.

3. The Muscle:

Protagonists can be strong heroes capable of fighting their own battles, or fragile characters who need someone like the muscle to protect them. Muscle sidekicks differ from a hero archetype in their loyalties, the muscle almost always fights for the sake of the protagonist, not for the protagonist’s goals. The muscle may not even agree with the protagonist’s goal, but sticks with him for friendship’s sake. The scale of the muscle is relative to the task. Kids can play the muscle, especially when they stand up for someone smaller and weaker, look at Elliot in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Burn Notice is the perfect collection of muscle sidekicks with a hero protagonist. Who doesn’t love scruffy Sam, or feisty Fiona? With a cache of dangerous skills and extensive underworld contacts, the muscle sidekicks on Burn Notice manage to help save Michael’s skin in just about every episode.

4. The Heart:

This character is sometimes mistaken for the cheerleader, but it’s vastly different. Whereas cheerleaders influence others with optimism, the heart is all about the morality of the end game. They will likely admit tomorrow will suck just as much as yesterday, but as long as the path is just, the hardship is worth it. The hearts often work their magic from the sidelines. They may even make concessions in secret that jeopardize their own safety to protect the protagonist, like with Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games. Some hearts rise up from the ranks to become protagonist leaders, or the symbols of the cause, like Princesses Leia in Star Wars. Other hearts prefer to shun the limelight and responsibility of leadership, and use their sidekick status to repair broken alliances and make passionate pleas for protagonist support. Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the heart during the early seasons, less so in later years. Her special blend of talents, sound advice, and kindness, helped fuse the group together at critical times.

5. The Skeptic:

Sidekick ScullyFor the skeptics to assume the sidekick role they cannot constantly be negative characters; no one would willingly hang out with a dogmatic, unretractable skeptic. Unless it’s Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory or Star Trek’s Spock. Most sidekick skeptics are softer. They are careful, overly analytical characters. People who look, and then calculate the statistical probability of failure in mean, median and mode, before they leap. Skeptics can balance an overly bold, emotional, or freethinking protagonist. Look to Dana Scully in early seasons of X-Files as the perfect skeptic sidekick, always ready to find the logical answer for Mulder’s wild speculations.

6. The Fish Out of Water:

Time travel, supernatural abilities, reversals in social status or changes in cultural setting can produce some spectacular back-stories for this lost, lonely, and sometimes funny character. A good fish-out-of-water sidekick gives the protagonist a chance to protect someone, and to learn something about themselves in the process. The biggest problem with the fish out of water is when it drags out too long. Eventually the fish must learn to navigate the new environment. For this reason, using a fish-out-water character for a single book is a smart bet, but casting them in a series of books is risky. Right now TV is in love with the fish out of water: Sleepy Hollow and Hart of Dixie. Film shares a long history of using this archetype both as protagonist and sidekick. Try contrasting The Blind Side, and Enchanted for two vastly different takes on the fish-out-of-water character.

7. The Non-humans:

They are friends, counselors, and protectors of the protagonist. The non-human characters, (paranormals, space aliens, animals, robots, etc.) are usually infused with human-like characteristics. They walk and talk, at least to the protagonist, if not to everyone else. They function almost like any other character in the story. Sometimes they follow their own path, but usually they support the protagonist’s needs. If you want to understand all the ways to use a nonhuman sidekick, the place to start is Disney. From Mulan’s dragon pal Mashu, to Beauty and the Beast’s Mrs. Pots, to Peter Pan‘s Tinker Bell, the mythical non-human sidekick has found a welcome home at Walt’s house. Or  try a robotic sidekick, like Bender in Futurama.

Remember the key to a good sidekick is to make sure he is a contrasting character, and never the carbon copy of the protagonist. Although these two characters should have similar goals, they shouldn’t align perfectly. A sidekick should come in to the story with h/her own set of needs, values, and ideas. Have fun pairing wildly different characters, and see which ones click. Above all, look for balance, and for the sidekick to have a purpose in the story. If they’re acting as part of the setting, and not part of the story, it’s a wasted opportunity. 

For more Casting Calls try:

Lovers with Baggage

Queens, the Archetype of Female Power

More Great Archetypes

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Casting Call: 3 More Great Character Archetypes

As part of my ongoing posts on understanding character archetypes, here are my next three examples to study. Last week’s entry was for the Hero, the Leader and the Mentor, for those catching up, it might help to read that post first.

The next three characters are predominantly used for the protagonist in a story; however, they all make fine antagonists.

1. The apprentice, student, innocent, orphan, ward, or ingénue:

This younger character is often looking for someone (like a mentor or leader) to mold them. These are characters wishing to both fit in, and to stand on their own two feet. They often hope to prove something and they can expend a lot of energy on trying to make someone care about them. An intense single minded focus or a need for approval, revenge, status, etc can be their undoing. Of today’s three archetypes the apprentice is the least likely to be the antagonist in a story. The exceptions to this rule are the apprentice learning from the antagonist mentor, or the apprentice waiting for a chance to betray the mentor and execute their own evil addenda. By far the best group of films to study for the apprentice relationship is the Star Wars franchise. The Skywalker boys make fine examples of both the positive and negative apprentice relationship model. It’s possible to map out all the interconnected mentor-apprentice relationships and watch how they change and evolve when you study all the films. Yes, there really are that many, and they reach right down to the droids R2D2 and C3PO. No, I will not tell you which one is the apprentice, but I’m sure you can figure it out.   

Agent-Melinda-May web2. The curmudgeon, skeptic, pessimist, Grinch, grouch, or Scrooge:

Anyone sagging under the burden of life, dealing with their pain sardonically or with grumpy disdain for everything around them, is a curmudgeon. Curmudgeons can easily function in the role of protagonist or antagonist. This character can be the lovable, funny person, who despite stubbornly seeing every aspect of life as a glass half-empty; we still enjoy as a character. Alternatively, this character can be so rye, sharp and heartsick, that their disagreeable nature generates ire wherever they go, including with readers who likely feel only pity for them. It’s hard to write a lovable angry, disagreeable, curmudgeon, but it is possible. Some curmudgeons we find fascinating because of superior intellect, or a unique insight into human behavior. To study the funny curmudgeon, watch the film Grumpy Old Men. For a less funny version, watch episodes of House M.D. or study Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a great female grump.

3. The brains, mastermind, inventor, visionary, or genius:

Fictional intellectuals (like real ones) are usually brainy in a few areas and clueless in a number of Sherlockwebothers. Frequently, it’s from their lacking areas that a reader can find them endearing. Brains tend to be in constant motion, if not physically, then through interior monologue. They’re constantly plotting, planning, acting or reacting to their own complicated thought processes. The stereotypes for the brainy character are too many to count, like the computer savvy guy with the low social esteem and the mismatched socks. Or the angry brain, who lives life constantly disappointed in the lack of other people’s intellect and feels the need to belittle others. Some brains love the spotlight, and will seek recognition or fierce conflict with rivals to prove how smart they are. A discreet, shy version of the brain might be happier flying under the radar, perhaps even letting others take credit for their inventions. The brain can be a great original character, and works equally well for a protagonist or an antagonist. To study all types of brains at work, watch the BBC’s Sherlock.

All character archetypes should be a blend of positive attributes and flawed ones. As writers it’s helpful if we mix up these common traits, perhaps by blending traits from several archetypes in fresh ways. Try the curmudgeon/leader, the brainy/apprentice, or the hero/mentor.

Up Next from Robin…. Seven Favorite Sidekick Character Archetypes


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Casting Call: 3 Fictional Character Archetypes

As I mentioned in my last post, The Dos and Don’t of Character Chemistry, I love to write stories with huge casts. As a historian, coming up with characters is easy for me, I always start the process with real historical figures, twisting and combining traits from different ones until my characters take shape. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a large collection of interesting biographies at their disposal and that’s okay, because writers pull the bulk of their fictional characters from a finite set of archetypes. In my next few post I’m going to lay out some of these key character types, and give examples from movies, books and TV for each of them. This first entry deals with three major character types, often used for mature protagonists and antagonists.

lord poster1. The hero, the knight in shinning armor, the alpha:

This character is usually the main protagonist, but not always. Some stories, especially those with battle elements, can have many heroes. Heroes include a large number of subcategories, like the born hero, someone destined for greatness by an exterior force or a magical element or prophesy. Family birth order can also predict the future hero: the first-born child or the seventh son. A hero can be someone groomed and trained for the role because of superior skills, magical ability, or a natural physicality for fighting. These heroes become warriors regardless of temperament and although any type of hero can falter at a time of crisis, the trained heroes are the most likely to have feet of clay. I enjoy seeing a reluctant or unlikely hero because these ones are everyday people who don’t see themselves as powerful. Against all odds, the reluctant hero manages to rise above their limitations and save the day. J. R. R. Tolkien was a master of constructing heroes. He gave us a host of different types to study in the Lord of the Rings. Samwise, Frodo, and the other Hobbits are all reluctant heroes. Gimli and Legolas are trained heroes. Aragorn is a born hero, destined to repair the mistakes made by his ancestors. Boromir is a flawed hero. When you add Gandalf, Elrond, Arwen, and all the others you can study hero archetypes all day with Tolkien.

st web2. The boss, leader, president, or monarch:

In every aspect of life, work, home, school, someone needs to be in charge and it’s seldom the hero. The leader isn’t always the protagonist, they can act as a minor character, or an even as an antagonist. You can find them in the thick of action calling all the shots, or running the show from behind closed doors. The boss is a complicated character; some are uncomfortable with their own power and looking for others to bolster their confidence. Others are dictatorial, exhibiting a self-satisfied air and a condescending tone with others. The boss is often envied, admired, resented, and flattered by those hoping to gain power through association. The boss character is the ultimate balancing act. The writer must draw together enough negative traits to make them seem human, while setting them high enough on a pedestal for the reader to believe they are in change of everyone else. To study a leader protagonist, watch any Star Trek show. Just about every incarnation of this franchise from Chris Pine to William Shatner, has an interesting ship’s captain with a unique set of traits and dynamic leadership style.

3. The mentor,  teacher, or senior partner:

This is often an elder character and a protagonist, or co-protagonist. The mentor comes into the story at a critical transition point, often when the younger character needs direction, guidance, training or a helpful gift. Mentors range in teaching styles and story significance, but they always share a strong one-on-one bond with the student. Just about every story can benefit from a mentor, and mentors show up in some unlikely places, like Q in the James Bond franchise. I enjoy an author who gives me an unconventional mentor, one that doesn’t realize his own significance, or care if others value their council. Watch K from the Men in Black films for this type of mentor. Mentors are predominately positive characters, but some writers manage to pull off a malevolent mentor. That’s a challenging task, but it can lead to exciting results. Watch/read The Goblet of Fire to see how Mad Eye Moody executes the evil mentor twist.

Remember archetypes are just examples. Great writers find ways to mix these characters and give them a fresh spin and a unique stamp. However, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to miss these character types, and recognizing each archetype is the first step toward conquering them.

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